I once fought to keep Cyntoia Brown behind bars
In a major victory for human rights advocates, 30-year-old Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. She is set to be released Aug. 7.
Her case got national attention thanks to social media attention from celebrities such as Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and Lebron James. Cyntoia was only 16 years old in 2004 when she killed a man more than twice her age who had picked her up for sex. She was tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and robbery, and sentenced to the mandatory 51 years in prison.
When her story went viral, the tragic facts of her case — born with fetal alcohol syndrome due to her mother’s excessive drinking during her pregnancy; abused and neglected as a child; living on the streets; self-medicating her mental health issues with alcohol and drugs; victimized and exploited by a human trafficker — captured the attention of people across the country.
People were outraged by the unfairness of imposing such a draconian sentence against a child who had been subjected to so much violence and horror. The harshness of her sentence ignored the mountain of mitigating factors in her case, as well as the great potential that young people have to make positive change and experience transformation.
Children suffer in our criminal justice system
Cyntoia’s case is of special interest to me because in 2008, I served as the prosecutor who argued against her appeal. But I later got to know Cyntoia personally when I had her in a college class that I taught at the prison where she was incarcerated. To be sure, we had some issues to work through when it dawned on us that we had been on opposite sides of the courtroom, but we were able to put the past aside and forge a friendship. Although I once argued in favor of her incarceration, I was proud to support her application for clemency.
Cyntoia has experienced emotional healing from her traumatic past and has diligently worked to become an exceptional person. She has taken responsibility for her actions, developed a positive attitude, and cultivated a deep desire to help others. I am thrilled beyond measure that she’ll be able to build a life outside of prison.
Cyntoia’s story should not demand our attention because she is a rare exception. The opposite is true. She represents many other people who, like her, received harsh sentences as children and underwent a profound and beautiful transformation, yet remain incarcerated with little hope of being released due to sentencing laws that are much in need of reform. Imprisoning people for decades, even after they have demonstrated rehabilitation, is a failure on the part of society to live up to our best values of redemption and second chances.
The national attention being given to the case of Cyntoia Brown should motivate all of us to ask, “How did this happen, and to who else?” Those working to ban extreme sentences for children have made significant strides in recent years, and we should join them.
Preston Shipp teaches for Lipscomb University at the Tennessee Prison for Women.